The Lottery and Its Regressive Impact on Lower-Income Groups and Compulsive Gamblers

Lottery is a type of gambling in which participants purchase tickets for a drawing that awards prizes to those who match numbers or symbols selected by chance. Prizes can range from units in a subsidized housing block to kindergarten placements at a well-regarded public school. Lottery is a popular form of gambling and a major source of state revenue. Its popularity has drawn criticism over the perceived regressive impact on lower-income groups and compulsive gamblers, as well as its potential to fund unsavory government policies.

While the practice of determining fates and distribution of property by lot dates back to ancient times—the Old Testament includes instructions for Moses to use it to divide Israel and Roman emperors used it to give away slaves—the modern lottery is a much more recent phenomenon, beginning in the mid-nineteenth century. It was initially conceived as a means to raise money for government projects, but has since grown in scope and complexity. Its advocates emphasize its value as a source of “painless” revenue—players voluntarily spend their money in exchange for state services, rather than being taxed by the government.

Many lotteries now advertise two messages primarily: that the experience of purchasing and scratching a ticket is fun, and that the prizes are large. Both of these messages obscure the regressive nature of lotteries and the ways in which they are exploiting people’s desire to win. For example, a recent study found that many lottery players follow quote-unquote systems that are not based on statistical reasoning and spend large amounts of their incomes buying tickets.